One of my favorite shows is NCIS, and one of the most interesting characters on it is forensics specialists Abby Sciuto, who singlehandedly seems to handle all types of evidence—from DNA to firearms to automobile.
Real life, however, is quite different. Recently, I was able to tour the Suffolk Crime Lab on Long Island, New York, with a group of writers. The 40-person Crime Lab does what one person, Abby, does on the show. The scientists on staff are all civilians with degrees in science, and they are part of the medical examiner’s office.
In a sprawling building, they handle drug chemistry, trace evidence, firearms testing, and DNA testing. They also appear at the scene of the crime and, at times, do accident reconstructions. What they don’t do, unlike the CSI shows: question suspects. Those shows have meant a boom in people studying forensics, though, said Robert Genna, chief of the Suffolk Crime Lab.
“Everybody wants to be a forensic scientist. They think they’ll carry a badge and gun,” he said. “They think they’ll be conducting investigations out on nice, sunny days. It doesn’t work that way. We go out at 2, 3 a.m. when it’s raining. It’s not a glorified job.”
Their interns get projects to do—a big one recently was using maggots to determine the time of death. Interesting, maybe (to scientists) but not exactly gathering evidence at a big Miami Beach mansion.
One of the most interesting parts of the tour may have been the firearms testing and the garage—possibly the closest to what I’ve seen on NCIS. The firearms office is filled with quirky characters, as can be evidenced by the stuffed deer heads, a small parachuting GI Joe-type doll, and bumper stickers with wacky sayings. But there’s also bookshelves lined with reference books for weapons, and a 10-foot long shelving unit lined with ammo. A high-powered microscope connected to a screen shows how bullets can be compared.
Downstairs, in the shooting range, firearms expert Roy Sineo shot a 9 mm pistol, showing us how expended shells can be used for comparison. There’s also a cylinder into which a gun is shot, the bullet going into a tank of water. This helps for bullet comparisons. Yet another room holds 1,700 weapons in a reference collection, mostly handguns, pistols, and revolvers, but also hand grenades, swords and even a World War I military rifle.
In the garage, a car sits being examined from a hit-and-run fatal accident. Most accidents leave some debris at the scene: a side mirror, headlamp material or even fenders. From there, it’s easy to find a model and make. Body shops, alerted by police, are good at calling in any cars that match the description.
And there’s usually other evidence in accidents: videotape from surrounding businesses. “These days,” said Genna, “people are almost always caught on tape.”